Mark L Thomas from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) central committee opened a discussion on the political crisis in Britain at the party’s annual conference last weekend.
He said, “The central fact is that the old political order is beginning to crack.”
Mark pointed to the success of racist party Ukip and the “collective heart attack in the establishment” of the Scottish independence referendum, which nearly broke apart the British state.
An acceleration in the long term decline of support for mainstream parties, combined with big cuts to come, opened up “the possibility of huge social explosions”.
Eleanor, a young worker from Leeds, said Russell Brand appeals to people because they are angry and are “looking for reasons for the crisis”.
Karen from Manchester argued the crisis in politics is being played out in the trade unions, as public sector jobs go and union membership subs drop.
She said, “The very little opposition from Labour was causing problems for trade union leaders”—which is why there are strikes so close to the general election.
Others stressed that a relatively low level of workers’ struggle meant newly-politicised people don’t automatically see the working class as powerful. Some activists are joining the Green Party as it can appear left wing.
Opening the next session, SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber said the coming general election would be dominated by austerity and racism.
He argued for making a “big shift” to put forward an alternative. Elections “are not the main form of struggle”—but there is a “great danger” of abstaining.
Charlie disagreed with others on the left who wanted to stand everywhere. “Votes do matter,” he said.
But he argued that although the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) was relatively small, waiting for something bigger wasn’t an option.
Jenny Sutton, TUSC candidate in Tottenham said, “It’s more imperative than ever that socialist arguments are voiced in the election.
“It’s a chance to show that the working class has agency. If we can elect someone to give the Tories and Labour a kicking, then we can empower people to fight back.”
Jon Woods, TUSC candidate in Portsmouth, argued, “We need to keep pushing TUSC so we can shape the election—if we’re not in it, we can’t shape the future of the left alternative to Labour.”
Two amendments to the commission document were proposed. They reflected debates on whether the SWP is strong enough to stand candidates in some areas.
Both were voted down, with 13 and 14 votes each. Delegates agreed overwhelmingly about the need to stand candidates in the elections.
‘Make no concessions over racism’
Weyman Bennett from the central committee, who is joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism (UAF), pointed to protests and die-ins over police killings in the US.
He said the anger “goes beyond the US”, but there are arguments over how to challenge racism. Weyman said it was important to argue that black and white must unite and fight.
He said the Stand Up to Racism demonstrations on Saturday 21 March could be a “scream of rage”.
And UAF’s conference on 21 February is important in stopping the fascists from regrouping.
Jo C from the central committee said that it was right to have seen Ukip as a real danger. She stressed how the SWP argues in the Stand Up to Ukip campaign that Ukip is racist.
“We mustn’t bow to pressure to make concessions on racism,” she said. There will be a protest at Ukip’s spring conference in Margate on 28 February.
Two comrades spoke of problems getting unions to back opposition to Ukip, as some activists are unsure about calling it racist.
Phil from Rotherham said comrades shaped the atmosphere after the child abuse scandal there, by raising the issue of Islamophobia when others were too afraid.
Tanya from London talked about arguing that migrants weren’t to blame for the housing shortage. She said, “Blame the bosses, not the poorest and most vulnerable.”
Scotland needs an alternative
Keir from Glasgow opened the session on Scotland. He said “millions are desperate for an alternative to the mainstream parties”.
Angela from Glasgow said the independence campaign had “created a space for an outpouring of anger on a massive scale.”
Despite opportunities for socialists, the main beneficiary has been the Scottish National Party.
Delegates said it was disappointing sections of the left want to postpone a united left electoral challenge. Conference agreed to continue pushing this argument as all mainstream parties implement austerity.
Workers’ rage is palpable—and so is their frustration
Many workers spoke at the conference, from those leading important strikes to those fighting to stop sellouts in their unions.
Introducing the meeting on the fightback in the workplace, SWP industrial organiser Michael Bradley argued that the situation had shifted since the collapse of the public sector pensions dispute in 2012.
More unions are retreating from national action. But they face more of a challenge to this from their members. And several high profile disputes have demonstrated the value of sustained action and escalation.
He said “There is deep frustration among layers of activists about how the movement is being led. There’s an anger among workers that’s absolutely palpable, and there’s a willingness to take political initiatives. We can build in that situation—but we’ll have to move in order to do that.”
Other speakers discussed the lessons of the Care UK strike in Doncaster, and the ongoing battles at Lambeth College, Defence Support Group and the NHS.
Penny, a college lecturer in Edinburgh, told how bringing seven colleagues to the Unite the Resistance conference in London had helped them “join the dots” between different struggles.
And teacher Anna said that when her own union wasn’t fighting, collecting support for others could give workers “a connection to resistance”.
Zero hours contracts haven’t stopped workers fighting back, as cafe worker Lorna found out after a meeting with US fast food strikers inspired her to join the Bfawu union.
“Our boss aggressively cut our hours, and introduced two hour shifts,” she said. “But now I’ve managed to recruit all my co-workers to the union.”
There has been a move away from national action even in some left-led unions.
PCS union member Marianne said HMRC bosses’ plans to clamp down on the union “is clearly a political attack, and it’s happened because we’ve stopped fighting.”
But in other unions workers are challenging their leaders’ retreats. Helen, a local government worker in Unison said, “There are moments which are critical, and our recall conference will be one of them.”
Firefighter Simon said the three year pensions dispute had been so “stop-start” that “for the first time in over ten years activists have had meetings to discuss an industrial strategy.”
Students are fighting back
Amy Leather from the central committee led off the session on the SWP’s student work. She said, “Students came back to university after a summer of global turmoil.
“From the horrific attacks on Gaza, to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, to Ukraine—questions of war, racism, imperialism and crisis are all on their agenda.”
Large numbers of students signed up for the Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) at more than 40 freshers’ fairs.
There has been some hostility towards SWSS from a small minority at some universities, following a dispute inside the SWP. But Amy explained that SWSS has worked well with others in a variety of campaigns.
Shaz from Wolverhampton described organising a meeting on Palestine on campus. He said, “In a university with no political tradition, it was amazing to get so many people there.”
Yasmin from London Met said, “I came from somewhere with a lot of Ukip and racism, so I was really glad when I found SWSS.”
Yasmin was arrested after a free education protest in November. She said, “It made me even more passionate about protesting and revolutionary politics.”
Our class needs a party
In a session on party organisation SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber argued that world events over this last year have reaffirmed the necessity of revolutionary organisation.
He stressed the importance of united front work. However, “SWP branches are crucial to developing our analysis of the world.”
He underlined the importance of creating an atmosphere where new people feel welcome—and politically challenged.
Charlie reported a good level of recruitment nationally, although too uneven. He laid out a strategy for increasing and retaining membership using a series of educational meetings to introduce people to the revolutionary Marxist tradition.
Some 22 comrades, including new members, described the impact of building strong SWP branches.
Katrina from Wigan said her branch was small but “well rooted” which meant it could help shape local disputes and campaigns. Others talked about how their branches were growing.
For example, Portsmouth had recruited 17 new members in the last year through campaigning and Socialist Worker sales.
Eugene from Lancaster said getting new, younger members involved was “fantastic” and made a real difference.
Jan from south London said her branch had lost some members due to a recent faction fight in the party. But she said that now in the branch “every week we have four to five non-members in the room. It is now more diverse.”
Sue from the central committee said the SWP would be launching a re-registration and subs drive in the new year.
Other speakers spoke about the importance of selling Socialist Worker and signing people up to Marxism 2015.
Pete from Birmingham argued that more comrades should do collections in their workplace for strikers, such as in the NHS.
How can we end sexism?
Socialist Worker editor Judith Orr introduced a session on women’s liberation.
She argued that “rampant” sexism on campuses and high profile sexual abuse cases have driven resistance to sexism.
Judith said it was wrong to assume that Marxism isn’t enough to explain oppression or point a way forward. But she argued, “Many activists who identify as feminists or socialist feminists are our audience. They’re anti-capitalist and they’re angry.”
Judith stressed, “Our political tradition gives women agency,” she said. “Working class women are part of the force that can change the world.”
Health worker Janet described recent health picket lines as a “festival of the oppressed”. She added, “We are oppressed—but it is a brilliant feeling to fight that oppression”.
Several speakers spoke about defending abortion rights. Helen from Cardiff said women using an abortion clinic there had been pleased to see campaigners taking on anti-abortionists.
Organising in a world at war
Alex Callinicos led off a discussion on imperialism.
He argued that the relative decline of US superiority, the emergence of new powers and the failure of the Arab revolutions made more wars more likely.
He said it was essential for socialists to strengthen the Stop the War Coalition—and arm themselves for difficult arguments.
Comrades talked about the growing movement for Palestine.
Nahella from Manchester explained how comrades had kept their Stop the War group going, and how that had helped them respond to new developments.
Simon from north London talked about how the SWP had related to the complicated debates with Kurdish socialists around Isis and Western intervention.
The conference elected the leadership bodies of the SWP.
The central committee, which leads the organisation on a daily basis, was elected unopposed.
Its members are Alex Callinicos, Amy Leather, Brian Richardson, Charlie Kimber, Jo C, Joseph Choonara, Judith Orr, Julie Sherry, Mark L Thomas, Michael Bradley, Paul M, Sally Campbell, Sue C and Weyman Bennett
The conference elected a national committee of 50 members who meet a number of times a year to guide the party’s work.
A committee of comrades to deal with internal disputes was also elected.
Comrades made more than 180 contributions from the floor.
Each session saw a number of comrades chosen to prepare a commission to reflect the discussion and to propose key activities in the coming months.
These were then open to amendments and were voted on by delegates.
A motion on improving party structures that had grown out of last year’s conference and a number of debates on the national committee was discussed and passed.
An amendment from Central London branch was accepted by the conference.